Delving into the black abyss

I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.

MMOs based on a literary IPs: Turbine have done it with the generally well received Lord of the Rings (Chicken Play edition ™) and Funcom are in the beta test of their game that is based on and inspired by the chronicles of a certain Conan T. Barbarian esq. by Robert E. Howard. (Nitpickers amongst you may be feeling the need to point out that he was never referred to by Howard as Conan The Barbarian. I know!) Personally, I’m looking forward to Age of Conan a lot although I’m not entirely sure when I’m actually going to have a machine capable of rendering the lands of Hyboria in all their sumptuous glory. What I’m surprised about is that there hasn’t yet been an announcement of an MMO based on the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Okay, there’s a browser based MMO called Cthulhu Nation and there’s another one in development called Cthulhu Fhtagn! (sic) but I’m thinking of something with a little more production value to it (although Cthulhu Nation, a turn based and grid based game is a good way of passing 10 minutes or so) and perhaps more in the way of, say, graphics and being more like a virtual world. (I should add that Funcom’s recently announced project “The Secret World” sounds very inspired by Lovecraft although doesn’t explicitly state it’s based on his works.)

I will confess, at this point, that I’ve never played the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper RPG game and so I can’t say whether the mechanics of that game could translate well into a digital medium. Perhaps it would be better if a Lovecraft MMO didn’t try to use the same mechanics to avoid any alienation of new players and to stop the existing fans from whining about “how they’ve missed the point of the CoC ruleset” (because you know they will). The nearest I’ve come was when a friend introduced me to the board game “Arkham Horror” which was nothing short of fantastic.

From a developers point of view, a game based on Lovecraft’s fiction could be a joy to work with. The setting is so unremittingly bleak in terms of what happens to the characters that random nerfs to player abilities and skills, not to mention lack of availability of any useful items are all part of the horrific setting and don’t have to be justified to the voracious horde that makes up your average MMO playerbase beyond a simple “The power of the Old Ones is growing stronger and you are growing weaker. Live with it!” Designing rock hard quests and “dungeons” as well as introducing boss creatures that are virtually impossible to defeat will be part and parcel of the game.

There’s probably even scope for perma-death. Or perma-insanity. Or something.

For players, the challenge will no doubt be to survive. Lovecraft’s world is a world devoid of heroes as such but is filled with people who have encountered That Which Should Not Be Encountered and lived to tell the tale (which no-one believes). They’re horror stories after all. It’s not going to be an item hunt either – rather than players finding the Sword of Elder God Slayage and Ultimate Pwning, they will be thankful for finding Old, Rusty Handgun and 3 Damp Bullets. The solution to defeating monsters and so on would probably be gained from research and exploration (which, in turn, will probably unleash more foul denizens of the Dreamlands) rather than straight forward combat. There will probably be a lot of running away.

Having said that, there is scope for quite a lot of PvP between, say, The Cultists who serve Nyarlathotep and carry out his affairs in our world and those players who want to stop them. This already gives scope for global PvP goals such as performing/preventing the summoning of some extra terrestrial horror. PvP with purpose.

However, even from these simple, Friday afternoon musings scribbled hastily in anticipation of a nice cold beer, it occurs to me that players would be highly frustrated by the unrelenting and harsh mechanics of the world and would leave to play something more engaging and easier. But that’s okay too. If the game were to go the way of Auto Assault and AC2, the developers could write it into an event where the cultists manage to awaken Azathoth, Lord of All Things, who would proceed to devour the world and everyone in it. The ultimate Game Over.

Have a good weekend!

10 thoughts on “Delving into the black abyss”

  1. Mmmm, Beeeerrrrr…

    Oh, and I also really like your design idea. I would give a game like that a try. I really like the concept of survival as opposed to hero.

    I can see a game where simply existing at odds with the horrific game world would be an exercise in excitement and always being on your toes.

    Certainly there would be no loafing around in Ironforge, showing off your Tier23 loot to the local newbie population…

  2. I would personally play an Lovecraft game like that, with the secret hopes of the game coming to and end, just to experience and ‘end of the game’ like you mentioned. I’m sure it would be amazing!

    On the topic of Conan, if you don’t want to shell out the money for a higher end PC, the game will also be coming out on the Xbox 360. It doesn’t cost quite as much as a PC needed to play it, plus you’d have access to other games and what not. It’s even better if you already own one!

    Just a thought.


  3. The problem with a Cthulhu game is maintaining that feel of the nearly constant losing battle in a persistent world. The best idea I can come up with is permanent character death. Reckless gun-ninjas would recycle in very short periods of time, but the cautious investigator might survive for months and become a badge of pride for the player. It would be easy to facilitate this with an emphasis on gameplay rather than slow character progression, and the ability to jump right into the thick of it with a new character. Using a global handle system like that of CoH, people could find their friends no matter how many faces they’d gone through. It also opens a lot of opportunities for roleplay, but it would end up being a niche game.

  4. Definitely niche, unless there is an audience waiting that wants to be slaughtered like sheep. Good point, though, THIS is the chance for perma-death. And unrestricted PvP for insane cultists. And friendly fire. Ouch, it feels more niche-y every time I add ways that playing vs. Cthulhu would hurt. :p

  5. Alternatively, you could have the main characters cursed/empowered by one Cthulhian monstrosity to fight against the others or be tortured without dying — the point of Lovecraftian horror is that permadeath is far from the worst possibility. When several different cosmic forces are moving around on their way to destroy your reality without evening thinking about it, bad things happen.

    You’d need a really vast amount of content for this sorta game to work, though. You can’t get the whole unending and overwhelming forces running the same areas over and over again. Good AI ‘bot’ characters would be useful as well, particularly given the insanity and mistrust aspects.

  6. I agree, trying to make an MMO out of Lovecraft’s muse.. would not be easy. You would have to put perma-death (or insanity) right out front. And that’s going to scare some folks off.

    Plus, how can you recreate the throbbing, visceral pull of his stories in an MMO? Sure, I can see a chance of pulling that off in a console (possibly MP via LAN, but not likely) game… but not in an online game. Unless…

    Here’s where the money goes…

    You would have to have a crew of actual writers… those that write in or very close to this genre.

    Those writers would be the backbone of whatever quests/missions/collect-stuff-for-xp settings your would have.

    I can see much room for collective play (from the old P&P game), but a persistent world would have to be more attuned to the player, not the world.. something accustomed to Battle.Net.

    Yeah, I said it… for a game on this mythos to work..with multiple players… you would have to adopt the Diablo/B.Net mindset.

    Toons are expendable in that game (the imaginary one we are discussing).. and you know.. I think I just might plunk down $30-50 for the box on a game like that.

  7. @Inhibit – there already is a console/PC game based on his work called Dark Corners of the Earth which is loosely based on Shadow Over Innsmouth and Shadow Out Of Time. I haven’t got very far in it yet as I’m not sold on the obvious console elements of the game like save points and so on.

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